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Thursday, January 9th, 2003


American Studies

by Louis Menand

The Adjuster

A review by David Bromwich

Louis Menand has been publishing reviews and essays for about twenty years. He writes on most things a non-specialist could write on: novels, movies, television, magazines, politics, education, manners, celebrity culture. His academic training was in literature, but academically most of what he does would now be classified as cultural history; his book on the American pragmatists, The Metaphysical Club, was an ambitious and rewarding contribution to that genre. He brings to his pieces a large share of general information, prose decorum, and an accent of overwhelming sobriety, sometimes nicely, sometimes oddly varied by facetious asides. For those of us who have been following him on and off, the puzzle has been to decide what exactly he cares about.

On arriving at the end of one of Menand's pieces, you commonly think: how ably done. The subject has been closed. You are less excited than you were before. The absence of extreme opinions in Menand's work is reassuring, but it is also, when the articles are presented in bulk, rather baffling. A critic, like a reader or a spectator, is allowed to go over the top in wonder and delight, or, if he is a good hater, to make us laugh out loud. Even daily reviewers often exhibit a ruling passion or a driving enthusiasm. It has not been clear what Menand's is.

American Studies leads off with three classics: William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and T.S. Eliot. It ends with two contemporary profiles: one of a politician, Al Gore, and one of an artist, Maya Lin. The offerings that come between are very miscellaneous. There are essays on Richard Wright, Norman Mailer, and Christopher Lasch, all of whom might be roughly described as social critics; essay-reviews on The New Yorker and Rolling Stone; review-profiles of two famous administrators of the 1950s, James B. Conant and William S. Paley, and of Pauline Kael and Larry Flynt and Laurie Anderson. It is easier to describe the method than to characterize the taste that unifies these articles. Menand approaches his subjects with judiciousness and moderation; and he addresses not so much people as institutions. There are famous people who have become institutions, and he deals with them on that basis. Then again, some institutions seem to have an aggregate "character," and these Menand treats as sentimentally or ruefully as if they were persons. Richard Wright is made to represent the place of black experience in American letters. Pauline Kael is seen to have cultivated the pop consciousness of intellectuals — too assiduously, says Menand, but she had something to teach if you knew when to stop. Norman Mailer is a superannuated prophet who has failed to recognize that prophecy today is an outmoded form. Maya Lin, in the most laudatory of these articles, comes across as a young artist of pure intent, surrounded by the inevitable controversies. William S. Paley stands for network television in the period of its ascendancy. And The New Yorker? An institution to be regarded with great tenderness.

The opening essay on William James does not quite come off. It is trying to do two separate things at once: to solve a biographical problem about whether the crucial revelation of James's life came from something he suffered or something he read; and to introduce the general reader to the appeal of James as a person and a thinker. Menand has written better about James elsewhere. The most satisfactory pieces here, it seems to me, are those on Holmes, Eliot, and Flynt. Menand quotes enough from Holmes's writings and opinions to capture the charm of the man, and it is plain that he admires both a positive and a negative quality in Holmes: his civic good sense and his utter lack of idealism. (In Menand's account, these traits come to seem practically identical, though they need not be.) The review-essay on Eliot deals with anti-Semitism, and was prompted by Anthony Julius's book T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form. Menand stops short of the literary problem and shuns all speculation on the commerce between prejudice and imagination in Eliot. The article, re-framed here in the past tense, may understate its debt to Julius's book; but it is informed by Menand's own research as well, and adds up to a strong documentary statement of the case against Eliot. Flynt is an easier target in most ways, and there are critics who could have done the job with more gusto. Still, Menand makes pleasant work of narrating the details of Flynt's bad faith. He is suitably unimpressed by the merchant of degradation who became a martyr for liberty and ended up suffering very little.

It is possible that being suitably unimpressed comes too easily to Menand. An article on the Beatles as copycats of American rock 'n' roll — not reprinted in American Studies — was an aggravated instance of the tendency. In a doubtfully relevant detail of his essay on Mailer, he quotes a gush by Madonna about how much she wants to treat human beings with compassion, and appends his own comment: "Crazy, man." A mock. But why, when you are writing about something else, quote Madonna on the subject of anything? The argument would be trimmer without the quotation and without the mock. Yet Menand is naturally a damperer-down, his sentences occasionally seeming to turn that way of their own volition. The pieces on Conant and Paley, important administrators, must have been depressing to write, and are certainly depressing to read. Menand has a pronounced interest in the kind of men who run the machine of society; yet, seen close up, many of these men turn out to be dull people, fretted by the predictable vices: greed, disloyalty, narcissism, a closed circuit of self-deception. He pays his dues to their importance by writing at length about their careers. He takes his revenge from the sidelines in a form of jeering half-reproach that defies summary: "Conant never seems to have doubted that the destruction, without warning, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the wisest thing to do."

The Conant and Paley articles both go into the subsequent development of the institutions that these men created. For Paley, we are offered a lighthearted sketch of what it has been like to watch television, from the age of the networks to the coming of UHF to the freedom of the remote-control channel changer. A graver treatment is called for with Conant's advocacy of the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the idea of merit in higher education. And here Menand glosses over the difficult question: is there something morally valuable about the idea of inward merit — merit that relates to the ability of a student and not to the "representative" status of that student in a social group? He suggests that the educational problem has been solved by changing demographics. As the ethnic background of students shifted, he says, and "different kinds" of people came into the classrooms, the meritocratic ideal came to seem increasingly unreal in its abstractness. "It took academic humanities departments more than twenty years to sort out the consequences." Now, he implies, the consequences are sorted out. The truth is that they have not been sorted out. Such problems do not sort out or "shake out" by themselves. Menand's way of settling the question rhetorically is reassuring, but it will be impressive only to people far from the scene.

Full-scale considerations of three careers — those of Norman Mailer, Pauline Kael, and Christopher Lasch — go beyond the scope of the other reviews. The piece on Mailer is the least deferential of these but also the most generous. Menand was reviewing an anthology that selects from four decades of writing: he had the chance here to introduce a new generation of readers to a large and confusing talent. Between 1948 and 1975 or so, Mailer was a conspicuous and independent figure, a novelist and a journalist associated with radical politics, underground culture, the dangerous edge of things. Since 1975, he has been a best-selling bookmaker. He said in an interview twenty years ago that it was strange to have become the sort of writer he despised when he was a young man. Menand, whether perversely or obtusely, does not remark the split in the career.

He singles out for admiration a late book, Mailer's first commercial collaboration with Lawrence Schiller, The Executioner's Song: a detailed account of the life, crimes, and punishment of the convicted murderer Gary Gilmore. The book is written in a constrained manner, in short uncomplicated sentences, and it gives an impression of the writer trying to excavate the contents of minds that he takes to be simpler than his own yet quite opaque. Mailer was writing against the grain, and if one cared for much of his earlier writing it was hard to care for The Executioner's Song. Even so, Menand's praise of the work is supported by a long quotation and apt commentary. He does not directly confront the bargain by which Mailer gained access to the letters and interviews of the characters, saying only that it "raises the ethical stakes of reading" — which must mean that though the practice calls into question the writer's ethics, this can be treated as an ethical discovery by the writer. The article closes by asserting that Nicole, Gilmore's girlfriend, is the novelist's "greatest creation." But this is cant. She was not his creation but an actual person, a piece of life that Mailer re-created with a lot of help from her words.

Concerning the first half of Mailer's career, the more interesting part for many of us, Menand is informative and carefully ironic. Barbary Shore and An American Dream, disasters for Mailer because of their poor reception, have real wildness and are still readable, but Menand says almost nothing about them. The political journalism, of which there is far more than most people know — including books on the 1968 and 1972 campaigns — shows an alertness in portraiture and analysis that no other American working in this mode has ever touched. Even a book like The Fight, about the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman "rumble in the jungle," has a kinetic relish of detail that you cannot find in other accounts of Ali. Yet throughout his own survey Menand implies a high general opinion of Mailer while minimizing the individual grounds for it. He makes fun of Mailer's interest in sex — so passé — and isolates the first of the political pieces, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," for its entrepreneurial fusion of methods. He speaks of the "sour brilliance" of The Armies of the Night — a strange choice of phrase for a book so high-spirited.

Finally, the attempt to be generous here is pestered by the need to place Mailer in his "context," a task that becomes identical with putting him in his place. We are told that "he is a man — in 2002, he is possibly the last man — of the 1950s." A put-down of obscure import, for it turns out that he was also a man of the 1960s: "For most of the sixties, Mailer was one of the things that was permitted, since anyone who seemed sufficiently far out held an appeal" (not true, by the way). In the year 1970, Mailer, still a creature of his time, "ran into a wall. This was feminism." The explanation of Mailer's encounter with 1970s feminism is rudimentary. At last, the fame thermometer brings us up to the present moment: "Even Mailer cannot be obscene any longer. Everyone has heard it all." It is not claimed that this is Mailer's fault. But has the change of mores depressed the value of his work? On what market, exactly? Chaucer, Rochester, Byron, Lawrence, Wilfred Owen — none of these writers, either, can be obscene any longer. To say so is to say nothing intelligent about them. The fact that a writer may be called "of his moment" has no critical significance whatever. And yet if you were to deprive Menand of this resource — the measure of timeliness — you would take a tremendous cut from his mileage.

A broader point is at stake about what is involved in critical judgment. Menand believes himself to be dispassionate, and believes that this is the proper state of mind for a critic. One ought to look at the times from outside and just slightly above. So, for example, in his review of Rolling Stone he remarks that the 1960s "could use the attention of some people who really don't care." I would have thought that the 1960s, like any other promising subject, could use the attention of some people who care and are honest and inquisitive. He goes further in the preface to American Studies, which gives his critical philosophy. The darkest Nietzschean truths are uttered here with so bored an air that you wonder what all the fuss could have been about.

"In the end," Menand writes, "the only way to make the past usable is to misinterpret it, which means, strictly speaking, to lose it." He calls the method for attaining this use-value "historicizing," and his essays, he says, "are exercises in historical criticism." Not all his readers will know that historicism has long been the dominant "ism" in the field of American studies; but for Menand to speak, as he does, of a personal "commitment to historicizing" seems a fancy way of putting it. Like other responsible reviewers, he gives the background and sets the scene, and tells you what is in a book, and makes a judgment. The suspension of judgment (especially of positive judgment) is a detail that he sets much store by. "The last word — though only the last word — should be one of appreciation." Why only the last word? One must be so careful these days.

Possibly he overrates the need for precautions. I am thinking of reviews by Max Beerbohm of Cyrano de Bergerac, by Randall Jarrell of Lord Weary's Castle, by Virginia Woolf of South Wind, by Manny Farber of the films of Howard Hawks. All these reviews are appreciation through and through, not just the last word, and they seem to me wonderful work. Does Menand know something that these earlier reviewer-critics did not know? To "cast a cold eye," he continues his preface — applying Yeats's epitaph to himself — is "possibly too stern a directive"; but "a cool eye," he thinks, "is desirable." Here, then, is the trouble. All those critics who did not confine appreciation to the last word — they were not trying to be cool, or not trying hard enough. But was that so very wrong? Menand, who dislikes all idiosyncrasy and whose commonest challenge is a breezy "come off it," may not recognize that his engine idles lower than some people's. Nobody is to blame for that — not him, not them — whatever the cool eye may say.

It is hard to think of another critic who has made such a virtue out of not having strong reactions. Menand's opposite in this respect is Pauline Kael, and so, halfway through the book, one approaches with interest his essay on her career. But this proves to be another demonstration of almost impersonal balance. This article begins with, and finds much cultural importance in, the appointment of Kael as film critic at The New Yorker. Menand acknowledges that she had a solid reputation before that. She had published a good book of essays and written most of another and appeared in many academic journals and commercial magazines. But the convergence of Kael and The New Yorker is, for him, enormously consequential, and he devotes three paragraphs to it, space that another kind of critic would have used to argue with her opinions of Welles or Bertolucci.

Menand dislikes Kael's prolixity and her puffing, and he cites enough examples to bring them back to mind, but just as palpably he distrusts her enthusiasm, calling her appreciation of Cary Grant "swoony." For the rest, he writes less of his own than of a generation's response to Kael. "You" felt this and "you" felt that about Kael's work — a usage that is frequent with him, intimate, buttonholing, gently coercive. "She was the ideal person to read when you had seen a movie and couldn't make up your mind what you thought about it." But Menand is more engaging on the reasons for getting tired of her later work than on the reasons for admiring her early work. Incidentally, his article never mentions Penelope Gilliatt, Kael's precursor at The New Yorker, and a subtler writer who profited from having a less worked-on set of prejudices.

The article on Christopher Lasch is intellectually the most demanding piece in American Studies: a deliberate and in the end quite unsympathetic review of Lasch's The True and Only Heaven. The objections that Menand raises have to do with the defects of the book as a work of synthesis and its suspicion that American society is going through a crisis of faith. An underlying and unstated objection is that Lasch has feelings about ideas. To Menand, this seems pointless. He cannot fathom why Lasch in his last book would want to draw inspiration from a critic of capitalism as out-of-the-way as William Cobbett. In passing, he says of The Culture of Narcissism that it was "a book of its moment" — the same prudent investor's "sell-by" notation to which he has subjected Mailer's work decade by decade. But the moment did not write the book; a scholar named Christopher Lasch did. After other scholars and journalists had written other books about the culture of narcissism, the idea may have seemed common. That is the thing about an original idea: it is obvious after someone says it.

Lasch, whatever you make of the result, was consistent in his response to American society in the 1970s and 1980s. He did not celebrate the weakening of the family, which seemed to him a symptom and a cause of the weakening of the self, and he did not see the "creative destruction" of advanced capitalism as mainly creative. He was, by then, a man of neither the left nor the right. He saw a corruption, an evasion of self-knowledge, in this society's fascination with technology and its submission to be dominated by commerce. Menand, for his part, manages the considerable feat of expounding Lasch, Mailer, and Richard Wright while scarcely employing such words as "left-wing" and "establishment." These writers were critics of conformity, but conformity is an idea Menand can do nothing with.

About The New Yorker Menand writes with a glow. "If you grew up in a household in which The New Yorker was a constant presence, you probably retain, whatever reservations your superior sophistication now requires you to make, a residual fondness for the magazine's cultural traditions." He goes on to describe the magazine's older readers in a manner that is heartfelt and deeply flattering. "Their taste," says Menand, was "their great virtue, really," and this taste favored "the self-effacing, the unpretentious, the literate and witty." He loves these people:

They were secure enough to enjoy poking fun at themselves and their world; that was part of the nobility of their sense of humor....But they were genuinely insecure enough to require assurance that they would not be "out-browed" — that they would find their cultural experiences accessible and unthreatening, without being flavorless or incurious or prudish.

These are Menand's readers, of course, as he imagines them, and his perception of their needs explains much else about his writing.

The curiously timed jokiness, for instance. To say of a celebrity who mouths a humanitarian platitude "Crazy, man"; or, of television in the 1950s, "in a way, the banality of network television was the best thing about it"; or again, that the 1960s "could use the attention of some people who really don't care" — these gestures are meant to confirm the noble sense of humor of readers who "require assurance" and who want to "find their cultural experiences accessible and unthreatening." Later in the same piece Menand defends some recent changes at the magazine by remarking that we are all complicit in the culture of advertising: "Everyone participates in this system, and partakes of its benefits (individual economic opportunity and national economic expansion) and puts up with its drawbacks (cheap goods, an often banal and sometimes exploitative popular culture, financial uncertainty)." We are all in it together. Very little surprises him; and not to be surprised is not to be disturbed. "Among today's upper-middle-class professionals," he concludes, "the separation between culture and commerce has collapsed." This marks a difference between The New Yorker in, say, 1965 and the same magazine today — a difference that Menand neither celebrates nor deplores. The old style was "Something odd struck us the other day." The new style is "But, hey." He does both voices.

A pair of New Yorker profiles close the book. The sketch of Al Gore is a cautious full-length portrait, an ad hoc skimming of surfaces by a journalist who lacks a first-rate interest in politics. One is conscious here of the reporter's presence, and a lot seems to hang on an interview. Menand correctly sizes up Gore as someone squarer than himself but just as smart. What to do? The piece settles for an agreeable mixture of pert satire and discreet panegyric. The profile of Maya Lin is more promising and more disappointing. Menand has not been, and does not seem inclined to become, a finder of new talents, but Lin was not in need of being discovered and he was free to ask and think whatever he liked. Yet this article declines every opportunity of historical survey and description. We are not told what her lesser-known works look like. Though the writing is managed in the newer manner, with first-person glimpses of Menand watching Lin drink tea in a cafe on Broome Street, he opts for the impersonal decorum where it is no longer required. Lin herself has written thoughtfully about her debt to Sir Edwin Lutyens's World War I memorial. One might suppose her to be, on other evidence too, a person who has feelings about ideas. Yet Menand does not stand in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and tell us what he thinks of what he sees.

The title and narrative design of The Metaphysical Club suggested that ideas are reducible to a setting, a group of people, a large- or small-scale club. And yet, when the lively texture of biography and anecdote in that book had to yield some account of ideas themselves, the payoff was frequently bland: "Kant had a more generous view of the mind than Locke, but he did not think of himself as superseding Locke's theory, only as correcting for a few inadequacies." An assessment like that comes out of the same wish to comfort and assure that one finds in the essays on Wright, Mailer, and Lasch. The idea of a radical break in thought is alien to Menand. The leveling of distinctions also serves as an intellectual labor-saving device. Nothing is very new; nothing, maybe, ever was; nothing matters as much as you think it matters. Menand came to believe that the pragmatists had learned from the Civil War that ideals are dangerous because people may want to die for them. I have lately re-read William James's oration on St. Gaudens's monument to Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th, and that is not what I take it to be saying. But one's reservations go beyond a difference about a thinker or a movement of thought. To treat ideas and works of art as conveniences, psychic degradables, products of a past climate that require of us mainly that we correct for a few inadequacies, is to speak as a consumer in the realm of art and ideas.

This brings us back, in a way, to the preface to American Studies. For at the very end of his credo Menand shares a thought about the relation between the present and the past. "My own capacity," he says, "for adjusting to change is no better than anyone else's." On the evidence of the book, that is false — no smiles, no tears, is the constant refrain; pass on, pass on. Does he now deplore the necessity of his own posture? "We want," he adds, "to play with yesterday's cards, but yesterday has already unraveled past reconstructing." Why, then, make such a point of honor about historicizing? But his final sentence puts every doubt to rest. "Today is the only day we have." I have looked into this sentence, around it, and under it, sniffed at it, shaken it to spring a false bottom, tickled it to see if I could make it sneeze, but not even its whiskers budge. "Today is the only day we have." Well, let us get serious very fast, and close this quickly, since today is the only day we have. Seize the day, cherish the day, love the one you're with, this is no ordinary love, and OK, all right, but, finally, no. Our yesterdays trail after, and perfect forgetting is no more conceivable than life without hope or regret. Besides, today could last a long time. If you are still playing cards in the afternoon, you may want to remember the hand you were dealt in the morning. Menand has allowed for that contingency, too. He has re-written all his reviews in the past tense. The parachute is now built into the grammar. This is very much a book of its moment.

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